Friday, December 24, 2021

Teaching anti-racist citizenship in a non-partisan classroom

The nation’s schools seem to be dividing themselves into two camps: anti-racist and anti-critical race theory. On one side, some schools, like the one I teach at, are declaring themselves to be “anti-racist schools,” on the other they are banning books like the one that has emerged as the bible of anti-racism, Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.  

If we put the best face on both positions, we would conclude that anti-racist schools are not seeking to brainwash students with Marxist theories, and anti-CRT schools are not committed to maintaining a system of white supremacy. Rather, one side wants students to be taught that democratic values are incompatible with bigotry; the other, that schools should not be sites of political indoctrination.

We should all be able to agree with both of those propositions, which are not necessarily in conflict. I believe that my school is well positioned to offer a model for how to bridge the gap between the two sides and reduce the polarization that is tearing our nation, and our schools, apart. It has always been an article of faith, in my experience, that the intellectual autonomy of our students is the sine qua non of the "Harkness method"—which is used in every class at Phillips Exeter Academy.  We teach our students how to think and deliberate, not what to think. One of the great insults you could throw at a teacher in my department (history), was that their class was “Socratic”—that is, that you were leading them to a foregone conclusion. Our questions were supposed to be open to different answers.

I do worry, though, that in our zeal to become an anti-racist school, there is some danger of betraying this value. I’ve heard some colleagues say that the goal of the school should be to advance “social justice,” and instead of challenging those statements, the administration has seemed at times to endorse them.

Perhaps they consider social justice and anti-racism to be non-partisan moral goods and that any objections to them are morally indefensible and should be beyond the pale in our classrooms. But “social justice” and “antiracism” are meaningless terms until you connect them to specific policies and they have become attached to partisan policy agendas that only a small segment of the American electorate support in total (see the Hidden Tribes survey).

(How do teachers decide what is beyond the pale?)

Although I share the policy aims of much of what comes under the rubric of those terms, lots of Americans do not. And they can’t all be white supremacists. For example depending on how the question is asked, as many as 73 percent of Americans say they are opposed to affirmative action, a policy that would be at the top of most progressive activists’ list of anti-racism policies.  I’ve written a very long blog post on the diversity of thought among Black intellectuals, some of whom also oppose affirmative action, and many of whom disagree with the most popular anti-racist thinkers of the moment—Kendi, Ta Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo.  We can’t write off huge swaths of the American electorate as morally illegitimate and put their views beyond the pale of what can be discussed. 

One place we might look for a way to bridge the divide between the best versions of anti-racism and anti-CRT, is a guide that has been my bible for teaching politics in the classroom: The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess. The book revolves around this question: “how can educators teach young people about politics in such a way that schools do not become partisan institutions?”

Unlike the theory-laden, top-down nature of most currently fashionable approaches to anti-racism they base their conclusions on concrete evidence gathered through numerous case studies of what happens in actual classrooms, how students engage with politics and the impact of various teaching strategies. They spoke with students and teachers, conducted surveys, observed classes, and their book is full of case studies and the recommendations of students and teachers taken from their research. Their conclusions come from the ground-up, pieced together from engaged students and skilled teachers with deep knowledge of public policy and many years of experience teaching students about democracy and its values. 

The book confronts the ethical dilemmas and complexity of teaching politics to young people and the authors do not offer easy answers. It’s a Harkness approach, not a Socratic one. Often, they conclude that a problem has no one-size-fits-all solution and that individual teachers will need to arrive at their own solutions using their own judgements. For example, in a chapter on whether or not teachers should disclose their own political views, they found that teachers they studied were evenly divided on the question and that there were good arguments on both sides. Instead of picking a side, they gave a list of compelling pros and cons so readers could make up their own minds.

Still, they arrive at some important conclusions about the aims and methods of political education. First and foremost, teachers should foster intellectual and political autonomy. And students should learn skills of deliberation—how to engage with fellow citizens who hold opposing views and how to do it in a civil manner.

Here are some of their other topics and conclusions (quotes are taken from the book’s website, unless otherwise indicated by page numbers of the book):

  • Schools are, and ought to be, political sites, and educators need to learn how to teach about and respond to political controversy but they should not try to indoctrinate their students.
  • “Teaching young people to discuss political controversies is an important component of democratic education.” They conclude that the aims of the political classroom should include “political equality, tolerance, autonomy, fairness, engagement, and political literacy.” Students should learn the “the values [and norms] of deliberative democracy: reason giving, civil discourse, evaluation of arguments, and solutions for the common good.”
  • They “show how teachers should approach the question of when it is ethical to include or exclude issues that may be especially sensitive or personally challenging for some students.” (chapter 8: I posted a summary here).
  • While one of the chief aims of the book is to foster students’ autonomy, a chapter looks at the teaching of politics in conservative private religious schools which are unwilling to accept “the consequences of too much independent thought.” Parents send their children to such schools precisely to foster the religious values they have raised them to hold. The teacher in this case study has not completely abandoned the goal of autonomy, but has adopted a modified approach—“bounded autonomy—that “does not require one to critically examine all aspects of one’s life” (134). If John McWhorter and others who argue that the “woke” social justice movement is akin to a religion, then perhaps schools that are seeking to brand themselves as anti-racist should explicitly embrace the bounded autonomy model. I would be opposed to that; as Hess and McAvoy argue, students in such environments “are not getting sufficient exposure to political difference, making them susceptible to becoming politically intolerant,” thus contributing to the cancerous growth of polarization in the American body politic (146).
  • The authors borrow heavily from classics scholar Danielle Allen when they connect their findings to a theory of democratic citizenship. They call on teachers to embrace her notion of “political friendship”: “teaching toward a civic ideal with the hope that over time goodwill can transform a distrustful … political sphere.” Deeply grounded in African-American history and her study of Athenian democracy, Allen’s model of politics says that good democratic citizens must have respect and goodwill toward those they disagree with and consider the common good, not just self-interest. Elsewhere I’ve recommended Allen’s book as a key text for teaching anti-racist citizenship. 
  • Good citizens need to constantly ask themselves: “could I be wrong?”

Many of the schools that are embracing the anti-racist mission seem to be using a different guide to teaching politics: Kendi's How to be an Antiracist, which became a number one best seller during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020.  Kendi had been the keynote speaker at my school’s annual MLK day celebration in January of that year and the administration had distributed copies of his book to any teacher who would take one.

Kendi has argued that every public policy and every idea is either racist or antiracist. There is no such thing as not racist.

If you accept this dichotomous premise, then to be a proper antiracist you need to figure out whether any policy or idea supports or opposes racism and get on the right side of it. Kendi doesn’t want every individual to make that determination for themselves but rather, we should rely on the opinions of “experts.”

He has advocated the establishment of an unelected branch of government, made up of “formally trained experts on racism,” who would have veto power over any new policy enacted by any governmental body from the local school committee all the way up to Congress. He promotes this Department of Antiracism as a way to “fix politics,” but it strikes me as a way to eliminate politics. 

According to his reasoning, just about every conservative policy idea is racist, and so by extension, presumably, is the Republican Party and its supporters. Not only that, but Democrats don’t all agree on every policy--so some of them must be supporters of racist policies.

Can we deliberate with people who support racist policies? Is there room for compromise? Can we see their demands as legitimate? Can we accept their electoral victories? Politics requires that we do. Does anti-racism require that we do not?

As far as I can tell, my school continues, for the most part, to be a site of good political teaching, where  teachers have autonomy over the content of their syllabi but refrain from indoctrinating them into any particular partisan or ideological point of view, and students can express their views in the classroom, even if the social cost of dissent may be on the rise, leading to some self-censorship.  I hope that our efforts to become an anti-racist school will not be guided by authoritarian theories and top-down methods.

I worry a little bit, though, about item number 8 of the Trustees’ list of 12 steps to make Exeter anti-racist.  It calls for creation of “a new cross-department faculty working group to focus on incorporating themes of race, equity and justice into the curriculum of each department.” So far I’m not familiar with the work of this group, if it has indeed been established, and it hasn’t affected my teaching.

But it sounds potentially analogous to Kendi’s proposed Department of Education and maybe also the  state legislatures that passed anti-CRT laws. If we are to remain true to our educational principles, the Trustees should reconsider the wisdom of having such a committee; dichotomous thinking, political litmus tests, and delegation of control to appointed “experts” are very anti-Harkness and un-Exonian. But if we must have it, I hope that it will be guided by the values implicit in The Political Classroom that have guided our school at least since the Harkness gift—respecting the intelligence of both students and faculty, and embracing collaboration, epistemic humility, open inquiry, and tolerance of dissenting views.

 (Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

RELATED SOURCE: Helen Pluckrose, "Should We Ban the Teaching of Critical Race Theory in the Classroom?" May 21, 2021, Counterweight. Pluckrose makes an important distinction between teaching about ideas and indoctrination in ideas and argues that teachers should do the former and not the latter.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Engaging controversy in the classroom

I recently re-read an important chapter of the excellent book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. I think the issues and dilemmas they address in this chapter speak to the issues and dilemmas my school and many others confront when they seek to diversify the student body and foster an equitable and inclusive culture.

(For a discussion of the whole book, read this post)

Chapter 8: The Ethics of Framing and Selecting Issues.

In this chapter, the authors address two questions. How, they ask, should teachers:

1. Decide which topics to frame as open questions that should be subject to debate; and

2. Balance the goals of teaching authentic political controversies with promoting a classroom environment that is fair and welcoming to all students.

Teaching open v. closed (or settled) public issues.

Students might learn about closed questions in a history or current events class. For example, when we study the history of slavery in American history, students learn the arguments of abolitionists and defenders of slavery, but they are not generally asked to deliberate on the merits of the peculiar institution and to arrive at their own conclusions about it.*

But since the aim of the political classroom is for students to develop intellectual and political autonomy, open questions should be subject to deliberation so that students may arrive at their own conclusions.

Some issues are easy to categorize as closed: should women be allowed to vote? Should people convicted of certain crimes be sterilized? Should it be illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol? Others are certainly open: Should the US increase immigration quotas? Should states require voters to show valid identification? Should it be illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption?

It becomes more complicated when issues are “’in the tip,’ that is, moving from open to settled or settled to open” (171). Should gay marriage be legal? is an example of a question that was moving from open to settled when the book was published in 2015 and has moved further in that direction in the years since.

It also becomes difficult when the teacher has strong ethical views about a question. In his course on “contemporary controversies,” Joel Kushner asked his students to deliberate on the question of whether US military intelligence should use torture as an interrogation technique in the war on terror. But as Kushner reflected on the lesson, he came to the conclusion that his selection of materials ended up “steering” his students toward the conclusion that torture is not an acceptable method of interrogation. The authors conclude that Kushner was wrong to steer the conversation after framing it as open. It amounts to “manipulating the whole process to your own ends” (172).

On the other hand, in crafting the lesson, Kushner had faced a dilemma between two equally legitimate goals of political education: developing an authentic curriculum that deals with issues that are objects of “live political debate”—the Bush administration and its defenders argued that torture could extract confessions about impending strikes and would save innocent lives—and core democratic values like respect for human life and dignity.

An dilemma arises when a question is empirically settled, but politically open. For example, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the climate is warming, that humans are causing it, and that it will have devastating consequences. Yet one political party has resisted these conclusions, citing a minority of scientific opinions.

Hess and McAvoy argue that when teachers treat a settled empirical issue as open, they inhibit the goal of teaching students how to make up their own minds “by suggesting that students should seriously consider evidence known to be false.” They suggest the way to deal with this situation is to “rely on actual experts” like climate scientists. But one party regularly denigrates the authority of experts, not only on climate change, but also in other areas, like vaccines and masks during the COVID pandemic (see note, below, on mask science). And as long as a significant number of people—enough, for example, to carry an election—disagree on an issue, it is politically open, regardless of the conclusiveness of the evidence.

Hess and McAvoy suggest three tests for judging whether teachers should treat it an issue as open to debate.

1. Do some people disagree?

2. Is it possible to hold opposing viewpoints that are not contrary to reason?

3. Does the issue have “traction in the public sphere, appearing on ballots, in courts, within political platforms, in legislative chambers and as part of political movements” (168-169)?

Hess and McAvoy reject test #1—you can always find someone who holds onto a fringe view in opposition to just about any proposition. They conclude that #3 offers the most promising basis for deciding what issues to treat as politically open. It serves the aims of the political classroom: “to develop in students an understanding of the political world in which they live, a willingness to deliberate issues with an eye toward fairness, a capacity to develop their own (reasonable) views, and orientation to and preparation for active engagement in the political debates of their time" (169).

But they recognize limitations to this approach, limitations which have become even more evident in the political climate that has developed since the appearance of their book—the problems of political demagoguery, polarization, denigration of experts, and the strategy of sowing epistemic confusion, characterized by Steve Bannon as “flooding the zone with shit.”

“Consequently, teachers need to use judgement when deciding which issues to introduce to students as authentically political” (169). That brings option #2 into play. But of course in these polarized times, reason seems to be increasingly irrelevant in our political discourse and teachers’ judgements are constantly being called into question, as in the recent controversies over the teaching of CRT and the 1619 project. Even as far back as 2011, 50 percent of Americans thought that social studies teachers use their classrooms as political soapboxes (205).

Balancing political authenticity and inclusivity.

The goal of creating an authentic political experience, in which students have the chance to deliberate on issues that are currently live in the public sphere, can sometimes rub up against the goal of establishing an equitable, inclusive classroom environment that is welcoming to all students and where they can fearlessly express their views.

Surveys conducted by Hess and McAvoy found that English language learners, immigrants and “low-SES” students “were significantly more likely” than their peers to say that they “hesitated to speak in class because classmates would think their ideas were unworthy of consideration.” In case studies of classes that discussed affirmative action and immigration, Anna, a Black student, and Gabe, a Mexican-American student said they were offended by comments made during the lesson. Anna was driven to tears in the discussion.

“We are concerned that it is distressingly easy to predict who will feel silenced in class discussion, and we wonder whether it can possibly be fair that students who are already vulnerable in US society are being asked, once again, to make a sacrifice for others who occupy a more privileged status,” Hess and McAvoy write (173-174).

The last few pages of the chapter are spent exploring the rationale of teachers who simply choose to avoid issues “that are especially sensitive to some students” and those who choose to engage with such issues in their classes in spite of the risks. They conclude with a five-point strategy for mitigating the harm that might occur when those risks are taken.

The avoiders say it is impossible to cover every issue, so why not choose ones that will be least likely to cause emotional distress. Students will learn the skills of civil discourse best by discussing issues that aren’t linked to the social circumstances of students in the class. It will be easier for students to practice detachment in those kinds of situations.

The authors reject these rationales, and suggest that if those discussions don’t take place in a classroom under the supervision of the teacher, they will take place “in the hallways” without guardrails, a point raised by Gabe, the Mexican-American student who was “rightfully offended” by classmates’ “bigoted comments” in an immigration discussion. Gabe’s reflections and the survey data led the authors to conclude that the avoiders over-estimate the sensitivity of their students and underestimate the ability of teenagers to engage in sensitive discussions.

Gabe’s view was common among students who had taken classes in which challenging conversations took place. “You have to force yourself to feel uncomfortable. And you take the best out of it that you can,” said a Puerto Rican student who was enthusiastic about Mr. Kushner’s class. “I think that is society” (175). Even Anna, who was moved to tears by the discussion of affirmative action, said that the benefits of the lesson outweighed the emotional cost (127).

Teachers who challenged their students to deliberate sensitive issues rather than avoid them also assumed that the benefits of deliberation outweighed the consequences and sacrifices that some students would have to make. They reasoned that it is impossible to know how every issue will relate to each student’s experience, and when students do encounter peers with direct relevant experience of an issue it bolsters the learning about fairness and tolerance.

Still, the deliberating teachers were aware that some students would be more likely to be insulted by comments made during discussion of certain issues, so they suggest a variety of mitigation strategies derived from their observations (179-180):

1. Gather information about students through surveys at the start of the term so they can get a better sense of the class dynamics and how to take care of each student.

2. Establish and enforce strong norms of civil discourse in the classroom. Some teachers asked the students to construct the norms at the start of the term as a group project.

3. Put off discussion of the more sensitive issues until later in the term when the norms had been well established and students have gotten to know each other and the teacher and built rapport and trust.

4. Get to know the issues very well so the teacher can anticipate sensitive reactions, more effectively facilitate conversations, and correct students who use questionable evidence.

5. Conduct surveys after the class is over to find out how the students experienced the class.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism) 

*Actually, a history teacher might stage a debate on a now-closed question and ask some students to take the side of the wrong answer. There would be no expectation, however, that anyone would emerge from such an exercise on the wrong side of the debate. Most teachers these days, I assume, would shy away from such an exercise. (Go back to where you were reading in the essay.)

I would be curious to know what Ibram X. Kendi would say about Chapter 8 of the Political Classroom. He asserts that every public policy that’s not anti-racist is racist and that any policy that has a disparate negative impact on Black people is racist. Hess and McAvoy say that voter ID laws should be treated as open (163). In a Kendi-inspired anti-racist school, would students be permitted to argue in favor of—and even end up supporting—voter ID laws that most certainly have a disparate negative impact on Black voters?

I generally agree with Hess and McAvoy that teachers should generally not avoid sensitive subjects, and that our students are more resilient than we might think. But I once decided not to set up a Supreme Court role play on an affirmative action case in my law course because of the demographics and the particular dynamics in that class, which I observed in a preliminary discussion of the topic. For me, this reinforces the difficulty of the questions they raised and the need for teachers to develop and be allowed to exercise their own judgements based on actual circumstances and conditions, rather than simplistic one-size-fits-all mandates imposed from above. 

Controversies over mask mandates in schools illustrate the growing difficulty of judging whether an issue is empirically closed in a polarized electorate.  In this Atlantic piece, David Zweig shows how experts at the CDC based a masking recommendation for schools on a flawed study, undermining their credibility.  My guess is that most people in the liberal bubble will treat this example as an anomaly and continue to trust CDC recommendations and experts generally, while folks on the other side will use it as evidence that experts can't be trusted.  In his book The Quick Fix, journalist Jesse Singal has written about the "replication crisis" in science, undermining the the validity of scientific studies that have not been repeated and confirmed. See also, Ross Douthat's discussion of the inadequacy of medical science in the face of chronic illness like long-term Lyme disease and how it undermines faith in mainstream medicine. The film "Inside Job" suggested that expert economists were paid off by financial institution to exaggerate the safety of investments in housing and helped to inflate the real estate bubble that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008.

Monday, December 13, 2021

White privilege and solidarity

Race or class privilege?

Back in 2015, my employer invested quite a bit of money to expose staff and students to the anti-racist work of author Debby Irving. They handed out copies of her book, Waking up White, and set up a book group for faculty and staff, which I joined. They also invited her to campus and she delivered an assembly address to the student body. I was invited to join her for dinner that evening at a nice restaurant.

It turns out, I learned over dinner, that Ms. Irving and I had lived parallel lives. We were born and raised in neighboring Massachusetts towns, our fathers were both World War II vets who got married at the end of the war and benefited from the GI Bill of Rights.  We were both the youngest of five children (my younger sister, number 6, was born much later), and we were born in the same year, 1960. And we ere both white people who wrote books about race in the United States.

Unlike me, though, Debby had not given much thought to race until relatively late in life, and in the process of “waking up white," she came to see how she was a product of a system of racial oppression and "white privilege."

I had been studying Black history for most of my adult life, but had been exposed to the concept of "white privilege” only recently.

As a student of history, I understood the advantages of a white skin in America, but for me, Debby was not the best messenger to explain the concept.

That's because of some important differences in our parallel lives. The two Massachusetts towns we grew up in were close in geography but quite different in socioeconomic makeup. Her World-War-Two-veteran dad was a top administrator of one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world, Massachusetts General; my father was a janitor in the public schools. Her father used the GI bill to put himself through medical school and buy a 6-bedroom house in Winchester, where a "typical home" currently goes for $1.2 million according to Zillow; my dad use it to buy a 900-square-foot 3-bedroom (1 bath) ranch in Burlington. Given these contrasts, as I read the book it became perhaps more obvious than to most readers that many of the blessings and advantages she enjoyed—like the country club membership and the vacation home on the lake Maine—had more to do with class than race privilege.

Even the photos on the front (see above) and back book covers scream “class privilege,” and say nothing discernible about race, aside from the color of young Debby’s skin.

Early in her book, Irving wrote that she understood class to be an important factor to consider when talking about inequality in America, and that the reader should expect her to “often conflate classism and racism.” Still, she hoped that white people with less class privilege would not assume they did not enjoy similar kinds of white privilege.

Fair enough. She was writing about her own experience and I do recognize that I have enjoyed blessings that come with a white complexion—or rather, that were not denied to me because of my race.

I am grateful to have grown up in a cozy home, next to a park, owned by my parents, in a safe suburban neighborhood. Most Black World War II vets didn't manage to use their GI benefits to get home mortgages. That injustice had been driven home to me when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic article on reparations, which explained the practice of redlining that made it near impossible for Black people to qualify for VA-subsidized mortgages.

But Debby seemed to think that acknowledging her conflation of class and race in chapter 3 would allow her to do it for the next 43 chapters without distorting reality or alienating any white readers. Imagine a white, single, working class mother with a full-time job reading that Debby's ability to shuttle her children from “one after-school activity after another had a lot to do with the time and money that whiteness afforded me” (209).

Irving didn’t invent the concept of white privilege. Getting white Americans to “check their privilege” is one of the more common strategies of diversity trainers. There is even an annual “White Privilege Conference,” which I once attended. But from what I’ve seen, it seems like the strategy is more effective with people who have a healthy amount of class privilege, like Debby and most of the people associated with elite educational institutions like the one I teach at, which spent a couple of thousand dollars to send me to the WPC in Kansas City.*

Debby’s work—which is largely focused on getting white folks to use the right words and avoid micro-aggressions, like mixing up the names of two black kids—is helpful in those spaces, where the usually small number of Black folks also have a fair amount of class privilege compared to the general population. But it doesn’t do much for the people of color who disproportionately suffer from the deprivations and indignities of the lower classes—or the whites who account for twice as many of the American poor as Blacks. 

White privilege workshops and Debby’s book ask us to change our thinking—to get woke, as they say. Acknowledgment of class privilege might require the better off to give up some wealth or income through, say, higher taxes and redistribution of income. Maybe that’s why the concept of “white privilege” is so much more popular than “class privilege” at places like Exeter.

Toward the end of her book, Irving calls for “solidarity” between Black and white people, which she frames as “sharing the burden of race.” As an example, she tells a story of a grade-school class where all the children shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. Debby describes her own efforts at racial solidarity: she has stopped snacking on food in her shopping cart before paying for it, because Black friends get into trouble when they do that; she doesn’t try to “sweet talk” her way out of speeding tickets (223). I’m not sure what she does with the royalties from her book or her speaking fees from places like Exeter.

Debby’s notion of solidarity echoes the calls by many contemporary advocates of racial justice for people to become “white allies.” 

When she reaches beyond race relations on the personal level to talk about systems, Debby cites an example of a county in Maryland that sought to lower the achievement gap among school children by redistributing funding from affluent to less affluent districts. Her reflection on the solution is revealing:

Could I have been convinced to have my county's resources shifted from my child's school to a Red Zone school if I didn't understand the achievement gap’s historical roots? I can't know for sure, but I think it may have been a hard concept for me to embrace (209).
I don’t know many parents—especially not among the upper classes that I mingle with—who are willing to sacrifice their own kids’ best interests for the advancement of other peoples’ children. That’s true of wealthy people, as the so-called varsity blues scandal illustrates all-too clearly.

And as J. Anthony Lukas shows in his vivid account of the Boston busing fiasco of the 1970s, Common Ground, it’s also true of working-class people like the white parents of Charlestown, who resisted having their children transferred to what they assumed were worse schools across town in Black neighborhoods they perceived as unsafe. They resisted ferociously, but in the end they had no choice. Lukas’s account does not conflate race and class and if you read it you will understand why you can’t fully understand one without the other.

And of course the better suburban schools of Boston, like Winchester, were excluded from Judge Garrity’s integration order.

If we want to promote interracial solidarity and support for racial justice among white people we should not frame racial equity as a zero-sum game in which parents must sacrifice their children.

One way is to stop using the term “privilege.”

Debby’s father and mine both put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis. I consider the pay they got for their military service—like the pay any wage-worker gets after doing the job—not as a privilege, but as an earned right. Once Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, getting those benefits also became a right.

My father's use of his GI Bill of Rights to subsidize a mortgage was an earned right. It was not a “perk” that comes with a white skin (13). Calling it a privilege makes it sound like he didn't earn it or that there was something wrong with him getting it.

There was something wrong with Black veterans not getting it.

When we refer to the exercising of a right as a privilege, we are assisting those who call welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare “entitlements” to undermine support for them. Like “privilege,” it carries negative connotations. It means “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment” and “privilege” seems to implicitly include the adjective “unearned.”  It conjures up the spoiled child.

“Rights,” puts the onus back where it belongs, on the policies and systems denying them, not on people exercising them appropriately. The problem isn't the granting of privileges, it's the denial of rights. It’s not a privilege to be able to walk around the store without being harassed or to drive down the street without being pulled over for no reason. It’s a right of due process—a right that should never be denied to anyone. It’s deserved if not earned.

Irving makes a reference in her book to “the long history of white people mistaking one black person for another” (225). Over dinner after her assembly, I suggested that she read more history, especially Edmund Morgan's book, American Slavery and American Freedom. As I've written elsewhere on this blog it’s an essential book for understanding the origins of slavery and racism in America, one that critics and defenders of the 1619 project cited as a model work of history that is helpful for understanding how race works in America today.

Morgan and other historians have shown how white people came to enjoy rights that Black people were denied. In short, Virginia planters propped up slavery and encouraged racism by establishing a government that gave certain privileges to white workers while denying them to Black ones. But no one today should call them privileges. They are basic rights: to vote, to not be whipped by your boss, to own land. The tragedy of Morgan’s story is not that white people got those rights, but that their Black fellow workers were denied them at the same time—and that the enjoyment of those rights were framed as a zero-sum game—a framing we've never been able to escape and that contemporary anti-racism sometimes seems to reinforce.

It’s important to point out that this happened not primarily because white laborers asked for it, any more than Debby’s father asked for Black veterans to be denied GI benefits so he could go to medical school.

Virginia planters were the ones who enacted these labor laws over the course of several decades in the 17th century to serve their economic interests—their need for a cheap, cooperative labor force to tend the tobacco crop.

This tried and true method of dividing and conquering workers by granting rights unequally has been repeated again and again. In a new book I happened to crack open recently, labor historian Joe William Trotter notes how it worked in the development of the urban labor force in early America:
Both free black and white laborers lived "a hand-to-mouth existence characterized by minimal control” over the fruits of their own labor. But early white wage earners enjoyed gradually increasing access to the vote, state power, and their own political, social, and labor organizations, while the vast majority of their African-American counterparts remained linked to their enslaved brothers and sisters through systems of legal and extralegal disfranchisement, economic exploitation, and racial inequality.
Replacing “rights” with “white privilege” suggests that racism is good for white people–that our rights depend on others being denied them. In fact, when white and black people with similar interests unite, when they achieve solidarity on the basis of common interests rather than the shaky foundations of white guilt implied in “white privilege” and altruism implied in “white allies,” they create a powerful coalition. Such a coalition might not only prevent the erosion of benefits like Social Security, but might also lead to an expansion of such "rights," perhaps reviving President Roosevelt’s 1944 plan for a “second bill of rights” that would include a right to economic security, including “the right of every family to a decent home,” and every American to a living wage, "adequate medical care," and "a good education."

Notes and Sources:

(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism) 

The GI Bill of Rights “was the most concrete result of the second bill of rights,” but it “fell far short of what Roosevelt sought to provide” (15-16). Although his successor tried to enact universal access to health care—and government-supported health benefits have been expanded to a widening circle of citizens ever since—it still does not exist as a right of citizenship. “Roosevelt’s second bill of rights speech captured the extraordinary 20th century revolution in the conception of rights in America and elsewhere. It marked the utter collapse of the (ludicrous) idea that freedom comes from an absence of government. …[While many Americans then and now accepted the conception of rights embedded in Roosevelt’s speech,] it has come under pressure from powerful private groups with an intense interest in burying or delegitimating the second bill—and in recovering the kind of confused, self-serving, and even incoherent thinking that immediately preceded Roosevelt's New Deal” (16). See Cass Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why we need it More than Ever (2004).

Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014).

*Peggy MacIntosh, who popularized the “White Privilege” concept, also seems to have been the recipient of a great deal of class privilege. As a student, she attended private schools whose current tuition ranges from $43,000 to $66,000 per year and went on to earn degrees from elite colleges, including Harvard. She taught for a time at the Brearley School in Manhattan, which was ranked by one survey, as the second-best girls' school in the country and the fifth-best private K-12 school. Current tuition is $56,000, which 80 percent of students pay for without financial aid. MacIntosh certainly had the chance to observe plenty of class privilege in action.

I understated the case when I said that affluent parents aren’t willing to sacrifice their own kids’ advancement for those of others. Consider the “varsity blues scandal.”  Matthew Stewart has written in more detail about the efforts of Americans in the upper classes to maintain their class privilege here. and here. Others have coined the term “opportunity hoarders.” 

Joe William Trotter, Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019), xvi.

Morgan’s thesis is often pitted against that of Winthrop Jordan, whose book White Over Black, suggests that racism pre-dated the origin of slavery in Virginia.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Essays on anti-racism in the classroom

"Being on the side of antiracism is no inoculation against error” (Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law professor and 1999 PEA Martin Luther King Day keynote speaker).

© Tim Pierce

In a letter to the community toward the end of June of 2021, the Board of Trustees of Phillips Exeter Academy pledged to make Exeter “an anti-racist school” and asked every member of the community to contribute their “best thinking” to the effort.

At the time I happened to be in the middle of about five months of time off (a sabbatical plus summer) during which I was doing as much reading as I could, most of it involving African-American history, which was the subject of my graduate research.

I also happened to be writing about what I was reading and posting it on this blog, which I had started in 2017.

Before the Trustee’s appeal, my writing had often dealt with the history of the struggle for Black equality—the subject of my published scholarship—and some of those essays may be of relevance to the contemporary struggle against racism.

I speculated about the role of violence in advancing or undermining progressive causes.  I contrasted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Afro-pessimism” against what I believed was the more politically useful hope-oriented stance of Martin Luther King  (I spent the greater part of my reading time that spring reading about the Civil Rights Movement, especially Taylor Branch’s three-volume history, America in the King Years).* I wrote about how some tactics of contemporary movements were not sufficiently concerned with building coalitions capable of winning elections.  I wrote a tribute to John Lewis after his death attributing his willingness to reach out to and win over a former opponent of civil rights to an “unwavering faith in democracy.”  But most of my time during the rest of that summer went into a long post on ideological diversity among African Americans, a topic I had explored in the 1990s, during research for the dissertation that eventually became a book.  That essay shows that the main strain of anti-racism in America today does not represent the only thinking among Black Americans about how to advance racial justice—and it may not represent the best thinking either.

This fall, during a second sabbatical, I continued writing on the topic. What follows is a list of posts, with brief descriptions, that perhaps speak more directly to the Trustees’ request.

1. “The gauntlet of blackness”: There is no “Black Hive Mind.” A student commenting on the Black@Exeter Instagram page recounted a conversation in which a white student told him that Black people can’t be conservative. My post of August 2020 illustrated in some detail the diversity among African-American intellectuals and the Black US population. Although Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic, they are the most conservative voting block within the Democratic Party. They were responsible for ending Bernie Sanders’ presidential ambitions twice and election results in the 2020 general election and the 2021 New York City mayoral primary have further backed up that claim.

2. “A better approach to anti-racism.” The nation’s “racial reckoning” and institutional approaches to anti-racism and racial justice have been dominated by a narrow group of authors and advocates, including Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kimberle Crenshaw. There are other approaches that might work better. This essay identifies two: ChloĆ© Valdary (who spoke in the Exeter assembly last year) and Heather McGhee. 

3. “Historical ignorance is the soil in which racism grows” argues that the best way make people hate racism is to teach them the true facts of history. 

4. “1619: Teaching history, teaching contingency.” On the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia, The New York Times published a 100-page Sunday Magazine exploring the origins and legacy of slavery in America. Now the 1619 Project is being promoted as a way to transform the way that American history is taught in the nation’s schools. Is this a good thing? 

5. “Racecraft and the 1619 origin story.” What actually happened in late August of 1619 that the Times is promoting as “A New Origin Story” of the United States? It’s more complicated—and more interesting—than the Times reporting suggests.

6. “1619: Notes and sources.” A list of sources used for the previous posts with some comments on and excerpts from the sources and the issues they raised.

7. “Labor and race, then and now.” If you want a more accurate discussion of the history of race in America, you have to link it to the history of labor. 

 8. “WEIRD supremacy culture” makes an attempt to place European racism and antiracism into the context of the broad sweep of human history (including pre-history). 

9. “White privilege and solidarity” is a reflection on the work of one of the many diversity consultants my school has hired over the years, and examines the relationship between race and class and the anti-racist strategy of getting white people to “check their white privilege.” 

10. “Engaging controversy in the classroom” is a summary of a chapter in The Political Classroom, which grapples with dilemma's teachers face when choosing controversial issues to discuss.  How should teachers weigh the sometimes conflicting aims of preparing students for the political world they inhabit, with ensuring a classroom environment that is fair and welcoming to all students. 

11. “Teaching anti-racist citizenship in a non-partisan classroom.” How can educators teach young people about politics in such a way that schools do not become partisan institutions? This post looks at a book that provides a compelling answer to that question.

12. “Viewpoint diversity supports anti-racism” cites evidence that education institutions are sorting themselves into ideological monocultures characterized by “epistemic closure” and that this is bad not only for the core mission of education—conveying knowledge and wisdom—but also for advancing the cause of anti-racism.  

13. "Anti-authoritarianism is anti-racist." We need to oppose authoritarian impulses on both the right and the left.

I’m under no illusion that the ideas expressed in these posts are the final word on anti-racism or how Exeter should be an anti-racist school. They certainly do not provide a road map for the Trustees.  

As professor Kennedy's comment suggests, my good intentions provide no inoculation against error.  I do think these ideas tend to be under-represented in our campus discussions. I offer them in the spirit of “epistemic humility,” which I wrote about in a post entitled “Hope and Epistemic Humility,”  and which pervades this blog and my teaching. It’s an essential attitude if we really want to hear “every voice” in the discussion of how to make Exeter an anti-racist school and how to make sure our good intentions lead to positive impacts.


*I also wrote at least seven posts (#1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7) in the spring and summer of 2020 on the role of hope in politics and those posts are relevant to the contrast between King’s hopeful “arc of justice” and Coates’ “Afro-pessimism.” This essay is particularly relevant. It considers a democratic value quite different than hope: sacrifice. It is based on Danielle Allen’s book on citizenship, which I would recommend as a key text in any anti-racism curriculum.

Kennedy's quote at the top is from his new collection of essays: Say it Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture (2021), xii-xiii and 94.  He adds: "The thinking and conduct of those challenging injustice must be carefully examined because they, too, like all of us, are prone to narcissism, thoughtlessness, and abuse of power."

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Identity in the US history survey

Sally Field playing union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan in the film, Norma Rae

In a survey I conducted, more Americans were able to identify five of the three stooges than even two  of the nine Supreme Court justices. My sample size was very small and unscientific. But I have a feeling a real survey would come up with similar results. A C-SPAN poll found that 52 percent of American adults could not name a single Supreme Court justice. They did not ask about the Stooges. 

That is just one of a million embarrassing poll results and man-on-the-street interviews conducted over the years displaying Americans’ astounding ignorance about civics and history.

One of the more recent laments about the state of history education was delivered by the New York Times, as part of its 1619 Project, which leveled a charge of “educational malpractice” against America’s history teachers for the way they teach the history of slavery. Elements of malpractice include outdated textbooks, the whiteness of teachers, and the soft-pedaling of the horrors of slavery in elementary grades. A history professor complained that his 8-year-old daughter was told by a teacher that George Washington had false teeth, but not that he bought some of them from slaves.

One survey showed that a third of students thought the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery rather than the 13th Amendment. I actually found that result heartening, compared with some of the other ignorance we’ve seen. At least they were close. More disturbing is the finding that 92 percent of students didn’t know that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.

None of this should be surprising. Since 1917 dismal knowledge about all aspects of American history has been revealed in surveys released as a more-or-less annual ritual of national self-flagellation. That year, only 33 percent of high school students were able to identify “the simplest and most obvious facts of American history” and the results have not improved much over the past century. 

It seems that educational malpractice in the teaching of History goes far beyond the slavery curriculum. And every group has their particular complaint. Conservatives think our courses are too negative and don't adequately capture the nation's greatness or foster a proper sense of patriotism and unity. Last year, students at my school criticized my colleagues and me for focusing too narrowly on the “Black-white binary” and ignoring the role of immigrants from Asia and Latin America in U.S. history.

I can't speak for the nation's history teachers, but I can tell you that the Exeter History Department is guilty of lots of unfortunate omissions in our year-long survey of U.S. history. We do a lousy job of covering the recent history that touches most directly on the world students will blunder into after graduation. Most of us run out of time somewhere between Watergate and Reagan. But we’d need to cut something else out if we wanted to add more about the last fifty years. It’s all about trade-offs. When I first started teaching at Exeter, we began the course with the Revolution and spent a whole week on the Constitution. Then we added the colonial period back in. Now we’re lucky if we spend a day on the Constitution. And there's no civics course in our curriculum. (By the way, according to a scary study by a conservative group, only 20 percent of college graduates know that James Madison was the author of the Constitution.)

The students’ complaints about the omission of certain racial groups echoes a mandate of the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative, that the curriculum include windows and mirrors, so all students see themselves in what they are studying. But the pluralistic nature of American society, with its multitude of religious, ethnic and racial groups, along with the rising awareness of identity categories based on gender and sexual orientation makes it impossible to include a mirror for every identity category and still cover things like politics, elections, demographic trends, economics, foreign affairs, wars.

One category that was not mentioned by students critical of our omissions, and doesn’t seem to come up much in our DEI discussions, is class. Perhaps, though, class is a way to offer a mirror to students in many different identity categories all at once.

As the political scientist Adolph Reed puts it, “class is itself an identity category” and it's an identity rooted in the common, unavoidable, daily necessity of the vast majority of American adults, to make a living. Reed says:

The concerns and aspirations that are most widely shared are those that are rooted in the common experience of everyday life shaped and constrained by political economy—for example, finding, keeping or advancing in a job with a living wage, keeping or obtaining access to decent healthcare, securing decent, affordable housing, pursuing education for oneself and intimates, being able to seek or keep the protection of a union, having time for quality of life, being able to care adequately for children and elders.
A history class is not concerned, like Reed,with building a mass movement, but his insight about identity his might help us solve the problem that our nation's diversity presents to the construction of an inclusive one-year U.S. history survey.

Slavery, after all, was one part of a system of labor that included people of all races and genders. When we look at U.S. history through the experiences of the laboring classes, we see the whole rainbow of American identity and common and contrasting, converging and diverging stories. We learn that, before slaves sold George Washington their teeth, poor white people had been selling their teeth to wealthy individuals since the Middle Ages. After emancipation, the nation's first great industrial union, the Knights of Labor, sought to bring Black and white workers together in one big union to abolish "wage slavery." Their failed effort is one episode in a larger story about the American working class that involves every identity category, and a movement frequently thwarted by internal divisions but coming together in solidarity at important moments. It offers vivid examples of how racism harms and antiracism benefits white people.

Contemporary events often lead us to change the way we teach history—as they should.  The Civil Rights Movement inspired historians to bring Black Americans into the national story.  BLM inspired the Times to call for improving the teaching of slavery.  Contemporary workplace struggles should make history teachers rethink how we teach the history of labor, because although the BLM and transgender protests seem to have gotten more attention in recent years, something is also stirring among the nation’s workers—A Great Resignation of unemployed people refusing to take jobs and a significant uptick in strikes this year. And the most successful people's movement of our time in terms of concrete results could be the Fight for 15. Since it began in 2012 40 cities and counties have raised their minimum wages, and in the last three years, 15 states have done so. The Fight for 15 website claims 19 million workers have gotten a raise because of their advocacy.

Most of our students will end up in the workforce, and as they consider how to respond to job actions, it would help if they had a background in the history of labor movements that often discriminated against workers because of race or gender, but then sometimes unified them across identity categories.

Adolph Reed argues that class is the only identity category capable of “building a majority coalition.” It may also be the only category capable of building a U.S. history course that resonates with all of our students.

Notes and Sources:

(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

Nikita Stewart, “‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught — and worse — in American schools.” New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2019.

Adolph Reed, Class Notes, Posing as Politics and other thoughts on the American Scene (2000). Quotes are from the introductory essay.

Fight for 15. A prominent Fight for 15 organizer, Terrence Wise, a Black 40-something Burger King employee and father of three called on workers of different racial categories to unite under their shared class identity. “We've got to build a multiracial movement, a different kind of social justice movement for the 21st century…. We've got to have a new identity for the working class. What do we do every day in this country? We make this country run.” (I can’t seem to find the source of the quote, but here is the Fight for 15 website.) 

Employment in the fast food industry is typical of social problems like poverty and police brutality in that a disproportionate number of Black people work in low-wage fast-food jobs, but white people make up a larger number of that work force.

Statistics are often wielded in ways that obscure these facts by activists with different political agendas (they call each other race reductionists and class reductionists; welcome to the fractured American left). It's a good example of why an education in statistics is essential for advancing anti-racism and social justice. We need to prepare students for navigating these disputes within the left. Not to mention between the left and the right. Adolph Reed writes extensively on what he calls anti-disparitarianism.

On Washington’s teeth: “Records at Mount Vernon show that Washington bought teeth from slaves. The poor in the Western world had been selling teeth as a means of making money since the Middle Ages, and these teeth would be sold as dentures or implants to those of financial means.” 

Feature length movies that portray actual events that illustrate the problem of working class diversity: Free state of Jones; Matewan; Norma Rae; Pride (okay, that takes place in Thatcher’s Britain). A fictional story emerging from contemporary workplace concerns: Sorry to Bother You.

Sam Wineberg argues that the dismal test results don’t really tell us much about what is wrong with history education in America. Teachers should not be obsessed with cramming facts into their students’ heads so they will do well on the next blue-ribbon study of American’s historical ignorance. Instead, they should “help students construct a usable narrative that can inform their understanding of contemporary affairs.” In this he seems to agree with retired teacher Mike Maxwell, author of Future-Focused History. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

WEIRD supremacy culture

In the summer of Our Racial Reckoning, a controversy erupted around a poster on the Smithsonian History museum website with the title “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” The poster presented a list of largely positive cultural values—things like delayed gratification, be polite, action-oriented, rugged individualism, and hard work—but attributed them to "whiteness" and seemed to frame them in a negative light. President Trump and others condemned the poster and it was soon taken down. Just another skirmish in the Great American Culture War.

The poster was derived from a popular handbook for anti-racism training written in 1978 and still used in classrooms and seminars. The book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz has a 4.1 rating on Amazon and is “an important book that needs to be read by all professionals,” according to a reviewer who signed off as Allen Ivey, a “distinguished” professor of education at UMass, Amherst.

The poster also resembles the work of another influential antiracism trainer, Tema Okun, who jotted down a list of “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” after a frustrating day of work sometime in the late 90s. She turned the list into an article and then the basis of a consulting practice, a website, and a book. Although Okun and Katz are not as prominent as currently fashionable race gurus like fellow white diversity trainer Robin D’Angelo, or African-American writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, their ideas are widely circulated, showing up in a wide variety of settings, from elementary schools to the Sierra Club and a national history museum.

Katz and Okun have a point. A lot of the features they attribute to white culture can be annoying or worse—and they become particularly annoying during a long and frustrating work day. Much of our unhappiness, I think, comes from the effort to live up to these cultural expectations. They seem connected to Americans’ obsession with work and the fact that 55 percent of us don’t even bother to use up all of our paid vacation allotment.

Consider just one item on the poster: “rugged individualism: the individual is the primary unit.” We may be the loneliest people in human history. Since 1960, the percentage of Americans who live alone has risen from 13 to 28. The self-liquidating nuclear family is a clever arrangement that sustains the population but keeps it atomized. You have children and raise them to adulthood, then send them to college five hours away in a different state where they meet a boyfriend and end up spending Thanksgiving with his family, who also live five hours away (this is a totally hypothetical example, with no connection to actual events).

The extended family—once the “primary unit” of humanity—is soon to be joined by the neighborhood in the dustbin of history. Twenty-six percent of millennials say they don’t know the name of even one neighbor.

But what does any of this have to do with skin color? Are Black and brown people all living in extended-family heaven? Have they all mastered work-life balance?

No say Okun and the Smithsonian: “Since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalized some aspect of white culture—including people of color.”

Hard-working, individualistic Black people, it seems, are not authentically Black. That’s "a racialist view that imputes a singular, authentic consciousness and values, aspirations and mores to racially designated populations," according to Adolph Reed. Policing the boundaries of "authentic Blackness" is a common weapon that has been used by mainstream race activists to dismiss the ideas of Black Marxists like Reed as well as Black conservative like Thomas Sowell. It seems particularly objectionable when wielded by white people.

What annoys some whites and a lot of Blacks about the Smithsonian poster and Okun’s formulations is that they seem to accept a fundamental premise of racism—that a person’s skin color comes with certain essential characteristics. Critics of contemporary antiracist thinking often level this charge of racial essentialism, and also race reductionism—the belief that racism is the cause of every social phenomenon—against antiracists activists and diversity trainers.

To be fair, Okun, Katz, and those who agree with them would disavow those charges and say they are talking about cultural, not biological or genetic, essences. But their work makes culture seem less fluid than it is.

And the poster gave conservatives an easy win in the culture war.

I’d like to suggest that Okun and Katz—and the Smithsonian—could have avoided a lot of grief if they had grounded their analysis of culture in history rather than skin color.

I write as a fairly recent convert to “big history”—an approach to the discipline that looks at the whole sweep of the human story rather than just the relatively small part of it reflected in written historical documents. When I first saw the Smithsonian poster I thought about James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain, which hinges on the development of grain-based agriculture and chronicles the long conflict between the people inside and outside of states. Because civilization depended on the labor-intensive cultivation of grains, inhabitants of states were coerced into working much harder and longer than the hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists who continued to reside outside the city walls. He describes those stateless, uncivilized “barbarians” as mostly happier and better off than the poor slobs living under the yoke of the state, in much the same way that Okun and Katz think of non-white people as having certain advantages over lonely, repressed, over-worked whites.

But it’s historical developments like agriculture and the rise of states, according to Scott and other big historians, not white skin that is the source of our misery. Civilized states sprang up all over the world, from Mexico to China, so the civilized-barbarian dichotomy does not represent a racial distinction. The barbarians outside the European states were just as “white” as the folks inside. But not all civilized cultures are alike—and Okun-Katz are onto something when they suggest that Europeans have developed a more intense version of civilized culture. It did not arise as a product of their whiteness, however, and even now not all Europeans share these characteristics equally, though they all live in states.

Long before the advent of “whiteness studies,”* historians have been trying to understand European exceptionalism. Why, they ask, did Europeans come to dominate the world? Like Okun and Katz, 19th century European historians credited essential characteristics of races. Europe took over because Europeans were biologically superior. Thankfully, 20th century historians moved beyond racial determinism to explore other possible causes.

A few years back, for example, Jared Diamond offered a compelling argument based on geographical determinism in his popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other explanations have included things like the competition among European states, the Black Plague, and the invention or adoption of various technologies ranging from the printing press to the lateen sail and from eye-glasses to gunpowder.

A new book advances another compelling theory that seems particularly compatible with antiracism, even though it contradicts some of the premises of the movement.

In the WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich, argues that the European people he calls WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Democratic) and that Katz and Okun call white, got their peculiar characteristics not via biological evolution and not because of any physical feature like skin color, but through the evolution of culture. And because the key to that evolution was fluky, it implies no sense of inherent superiority among individuals in one culture over individuals in another. It wasn’t planned or willful, and it didn’t happen because the Europeans were naturally smarter or more industrious. It wasn’t in the genes.

According to Henrich, it emerged from a quirky set of policies, imposed on Europeans by the Catholic Church starting in the fourth century, which radically changed the nature of families, by, among many other things, prohibiting cousin marriage. Henrich call it the Marriage and Family Program (MFP). All these policies—his appendix lists six pages of them—had the effect of breaking down big extended families—clans—into smaller units until we ended up with that unsatisfying nuclear family mentioned above and the lonely, repressed, rugged individual.

Just as you don’t have to have a white skin to adopt “white culture,” Henrich shows how you don't have to be white or even Catholic to adopt WEIRD culture. In fact, Protestants ended up WEIRDer than Catholics, especially in terms of what the Smithsonian poster refers to as “the Protestant work ethic.” And more recently, Henrich says, Japan, South Korea, and China have adopted many features of WEIRD culture and psychology so successfully that they threaten to surpass Europeans in WEIRDness (Henrich, 476). Cultural evolution—and history—is a seesaw battle with no inevitable outcome.

Like the Smithsonian, which lists white qualities that are both advantageous and a bummer, Henrich points out that the culture that helped Europeans conquer the world, carries some very unsatisfying elements. On the plus side, he cites things like patience, inventiveness, industriousness, and my favorite, positive-sum thinking. On the downside, WEIRD people are more guilt-ridden, materialistic, and prone to suicide than people in kin-based societies (471, 427). And Henrich acknowledges “very real pervasive horrors of western colonialism, slavery, and genocide (487).

And even the people who benefit the most from WEIRD miss out on the warmth of kin-based societies, which Henrich describes as “both impressive and beautiful,” characterized by

relationship specific kindness, warmth, reciprocity, and—sometimes—unconditional generosity as well as authority and deference. It's focused on the in-group members in the networks. If you're in the group or the network it can feel like a long and comfortable hug (Henrich, 300).
Of course Henrich and Okun-Katz are not the first to notice the negative side of Western culture. During the colonial period in America, Europeans frequently ran away to live with the Indians. (Graeber and Wengrow, 18-20). Nineteenth-century utopians created a cottage industry in pointing to the flaws and contradictions embedded in a culture they found unsatisfying. Some of them formed communes, others, like Karl Marx, fomented revolution. Such people, Henrich notes, noticed that a culture supercharged by market capitalism “sometimes led to alienation, exploitation, and commodification." And our yearning for that "long and comfortable hug" has never gone away. This fall, my daughter moved to a commune in Virginia in search of that hug.

While Henrich agrees with some of their critiques of western culture, I have a feeling his theories won’t sit well with many in contemporary social justice movements for a number of reasons.

For one thing, although he acknowledges positive and negative features of WEIRD and kin-based societies, he argues that WEIRD culture has advantages that account for its dominance, and suggests that a process like natural selection will lead people in other cultures to adopt those features. This pushes against the cultural relativism of the left as well as a paradoxical inclination to see non-western cultures as morally superior and more humane.

These tensions may explain why he was denied a job in the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia and ended up with a joint appointment in the perhaps less-woke economics and psychology departments.

But qualities like moral and humane matter little in the contest between cultures, Henrich would say. Rather evolution rewards the ability to “scale up” and gain competitive advantage (87-122).

Henrich identifies a number of competitive advantages of WEIRD culture.

At the heart of his analysis is the unique, western nuclear family, which he sees as the key to the WEIRDness of the West and its success. The Catholics’ MFP included prohibitions on cousin marriage, which led people to seek partners outside the clan and thus shrank and weakened extended families and clans in relation to other institutions, like the church and the state. Perhaps more significantly, the banning of polygamy led to significant changes in male psychology that suppressed competition among males, and reduced crime, violence and zero-sum thinking

while promoting broader trust, long-term investments, and steady economic accumulation….Low status men in monogamous societies have a chance to marry, have children, and invest in the future. High-status men can and will still compete for status, but the currency of that competition can no longer involve the accumulation of wives or concubines. In a monogamous world, zero-sum competition is relatively less important. So, there's greater scope for forming voluntary organizations and teams that then compete at the group level.

In Henrich’s fascinating and surprising chapter on the subject, he calls, monogamous marriage a “peculiar institution” and a “testosterone suppression system,” citing studies that show dramatic declines in testosterone levels among men in monogamous marriages compared with men in polygynous societies, which have been the norm through most of human history, and are still fairly common today, while “nearly all modern legal prohibitions on polygynous marriage derive from WEIRD foundations, ultimately rooted in Christian doctrines” (255-283, 262).

It’s not hard to imagine how this might make life better for women. Yet, the Smithsonian devotes four bullet points to the monogamous nuclear “white” family, noting that the wife is “subordinate to the husband”; and it has become fashionable in the social justice hothouse of universities, which Henrich says is ground zero of WEIRD culture, to rail against the “patriarchal” two-parent “heteronormative” family as an oppressive, outdated relic of the past.

While a student at Yale, Rob Henderson, who grew up in foster homes, noticed that classmates who came from affluent two-parent families, would say “’monogamy is outdated’ but then they personally plan to get married and have the same kind of family that they had.” This experience inspired Henderson to coin the phrase “luxury beliefs,” which he attributed to elites who condemn elements of western culture—like hard work and two-parent families—that are the key to their prosperity.

According to Henderson, the notion that the Protestant work ethic is an element of white supremacy culture is a luxury belief developed by people who have every intention to work as hard as necessary to get ahead.

As people sought mates outside of clans, WEIRD societies became more cosmopolitan and less tribal. Survival came to depend on being able to “engage in a wide range of mutually beneficial transactions” with strangers, so people adopted “market norms” of fairness, honesty, and cooperation, “qualities that will help them attract the most customers as well as the best business partners, employees, students, and clients.” Those values were internalized and led to a culture of “impersonal prosociality.”

People in clannish societies focus more “on nurturing and sustaining enduring webs of interpersonal relationships,” which promotes their warmth—that comfortable hug. Since there is little need for transactions among strangers, there’s no incentive to conform to “market norms” and develop values of impersonal prosociality (293-294). If you live in a kin-based society, you’re more likely to take care of your aging parents and to cheat a stranger in a business transaction, according the Henrich.

Critics of European capitalism have long focused on negative values cultivated by market imperatives and Henrich acknowledges that in addition to making us more trustworthy to strangers, markets tend to erode communal warmth and “make people self-centered, individualistic, calculating, and competitive” (300, 299).

The Smithsonian chart is full of values connected to market norms—with nine bulleted items under “competition” and three under “Protestant work ethic.” But these values are not equally held by all white people, or all people living in Western countries. They were less prominent among the people Rob Henderson grew up with and more prominent among his undergraduate classmates. In my own experience, I can say they are much more widespread in the racially diverse elite boarding school where I teach than they were in the white working-class neighborhood where I grew up. They are not determined by skin color.

The concept of justice is also unique in WEIRD culture, Henrich says, and he presents it mostly as an improvement over kin-based justice, because it is based on individual responsibility, guilt and punishment rather than corporate responsibility, guilt and punishment. It seeks to apply universal principles (however imperfectly) rather than maintain in-group loyalty.

The Smithsonian poster lists as an element of white justice “intent counts,” but doesn’t mention what a better alternative might look like. Henrich contrasts Western law’s “intentionality in moral judgement” with legal systems that don’t consider intent. Consideration of intent, which is connected to the principle of individual rather than “corporate responsibility,” seems like a wholly positive development in the western legal tradition. It’s good that we treat first degree murder differently than a death caused by an accident. In some kin-based societies the individual perpetrator’s intent doesn’t matter at all. Rather than a prison sentence, kin-based societies often impose payment of “blood money” to the victim’s clan “and the size of this payment won’t depend on whether you killed the guy by accident.” Failure to work out an agreement on the payment doesn’t lead to judgement by a higher court, but to an ongoing “blood feud.” The goal is not fairness to the accused, but restitution to the clan (Henrich, 219-222; and Weiner, 117-126).

The Smithsonian poster’s reference to intent is neutral, but it seems to reflect a growing tendency among diversity advocates to de-emphasize or discount intent, and focus mainly on the impact of a harmful act—which is more often a “microaggression” than a murder. For example, see “Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter,” in Everyday Feminism. 

Henrich’s thesis would not be appealing to anyone looking for a neat historical dichotomy between an evil oppressor society and a world of romanticized victims. It lacks the “moral clarity,” for example, of the Times’ 1619 Project, which posits racism as inherent to western civilization, especially the American capitalist system.

Like Scott, Henrich points out that slavery was universal throughout human history among all races. Henrich also acknowledges, like the 1619 Project, that slavery became more brutal under European market capitalism. But he also agrees with critics of 1619 when he argues that Europe’s WEIRD culture with its Enlightenment values, was uniquely responsible for the abolition of slavery.

He attributes it to their belief in “moral universalism” (403). Unlike most other peoples, Henrich writes, WEIRDos tend to think analytically rather than holistically (a contrast not lost on critics of white culture) and so they “hate contradictions.” “Much of the development of Western law has been about ferreting out and resolving contradictions that emerge when one tries to isolate a set of principles and apply them more broadly” (404). Thus, abolitionists and others were motivated to end slavery to resolve a glaring contradiction.

It could have gone another way, Henrich notes. While abolitionists were trying to resolve the contradiction between Enlightenment ideals and slavery via emancipation, slave-owners were resolving the contradiction by convincing themselves that “slaves were a different kind of creation and thus not subject to the self-evident assertion about unalienable rights.” Thus, WEIRD culture didn’t make abolition inevitable and it’s still important to study history so we can understand how the abolitionists triumphed over the pro-slavery theorists (569, n.8). One thing that Henrich makes clear is that there is a spectrum of WEIRDness. Some parts of the West and of the United States are WEIRDer than others. If he is right, it would explain why Southern white people in the antebellum US who still married their first cousins (rates of cousin marriage tend to correlate with degrees of WEIRDness according to Henrich) were less bothered by the contradictions between slavery and the democratic ideas of the revolution while people in the WEIRDer North abolished slavery in their states after the Revolution and then fought a war to abolish it in the nation.

WEIRDness is still uneven. Henrich’s book includes maps that show the relative WEIRDness of the different US states and different European countries. A great irony is that according to Henrich the WEIRDest people on Earth today are the inhabitants of the western universities—especially in the United States—that are the epicenter of antiracist efforts to dismantle “white supremacy culture.”

Which gets to the problem of racism in contemporary WEIRD societies. If WEIRDness abolished slavery, why hasn't it ended racism? Henrich might argue that any remnants of racism in America are a function not of too much white culture, but of too little WEIRD culture.

Racism persists in America, he would say, to the degree that the Catholic MFP has not fully stamped out intensive kinship and in-group prosociality, and racism would be more likely to thrive in places where that was the case.

On the other hand, a WEIRD tendency to believe in “internal attributions” leads to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” (“the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations”—Wikipedia). In the words of the Smithsonian poster, “you get what you deserve.” Thus, if a particular racial group is disproportionately poor, for example, it must be caused by an internal attribute of the people in the group.

On yet another hand, the principle of individual rights also grew out of the belief in internal attributes, according to Henrich. We see the right to a fair trial as an inherent right of every individual, not something to get or be denied because of membership in a group. You get the job because you are qualified, not because your uncle is doing the hiring. Once you concede the humanity of different-looking people, you have to acknowledge their inherent rights.

Thus, WEIRD culture is a mixed bag when it comes to inspiring antiracist attitudes.

Henrich’s theories may or may not be true but I found them persuasive, and also compatible with antiracism. For one thing, they offer a satisfying synthesis of the two sides in the debate over the 1619 Project. He offers something to those who point out the western character of anti-slavery abolitionism but he also explains how racism could persist in that same culture. And Henrich’s “WEIRD culture” offers much more ground for hope than the 1619 Project or the Afro-pessimist formulation of “white supremacy culture.” Hopelessness is the greatest foe of any kind of activism.

(Read about the 1619 conflict here.)

Second, Henrich dismisses biological or genetic explanations of human evolution as significant causes of differences among various groups of humans, focusing instead on how cultures evolved. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution assumes human equality. We are all, he argues, born with equally impressive brains that are designed to adapt to whatever environment we are born into. Plop any kind of kid with whatever skin color into any village and his psychology will develop in a way that is suited to thrive in that culture, just as well as anyone else. All human brains did evolve, he says, to be self-programmable, ready at birth to adapt to the social environment we face. (487) Not only is that argument persuasive, because it’s supported by so much documentary evidence; and not only does it undermine racist beliefs; but it also offers a great deal more hope for the survival and improvement of multi-racial democracy in the West.

But Henrich’s book should not be taken as the last word. In their just-released book on the history of Humanity, David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, say that new research that has been accumulating in recent decades “points towards a completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years. Almost all this research goes against the familiar narrative” and we are only in the very earliest states of incorporating this knowledge into an understanding of the broad sweep of human history.

I’ve only gotten through the first couple of chapters of their book, The Dawn of Everything, but I’m excited to find out how their version complicates the stories that Scott and Henrich have told.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

Some of the books that have helped me think more globally

Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Phychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York, 2020). Henrich considers and persuasively dismisses the evidence that psychological differences among human groups are caused by genetic evolution. The inclination of WEIRD researchers believe in “internal attributions” leads them “to assume that any observed or inferred psychological differences among populations are due to genetic differences.” “It’s important to confront this possibility head-on,” he writes. He concludes that genetic evolution is too slow to account for all the differences we see across the globe. “The many lines of research explored in this book suggest that cultural processes have dominated the formation of the psychological diversity that is apparent around the globe as well as within Europe, China, and India.” See 481. On the fundamental attribution error, 386.

James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) 

Anyone who is inclined to romanticize kin-based societies should read Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom (2013). Weiner's eye-opening book offers a close up look at what justice looks like in kin-based societies. Like Henrich, he also acknowledges the appeal of kin-based societies and warns that modern individualistic societies are always in danger of reverting to tribalism. Liberal modernity, he argues, does not replace and eliminate the rule of the clan, it merely suppresses it and the "ache for everything that is lost" in the transition, is never fully overcome.  "Addressing that ache is an essential challenge for liberal society," he argues.  Intellectuals and artists, he says, seek to meet that challenge, "sometimes to liberalism's detriment, but sometimes by reimagining the clan in ways that advance and sustain the culture of the liberal rule of law" (168).

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, (2016) gives a vivid sense of the big hug that is missing in the modern west and how it is sometimes recreated in modern western societies.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies  (1997).

Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (2007).

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009).

On the impact of eye-glasses on human progress and as a minor factor in European dominance, see David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1995).

Reviews of WEIRD

This essay discusses the reception of Henrich’s 2010 paper—a prelude to the book—by other social scientists.

An essay here by Rob Henderson in a conservative publication offers a thorough, uncritical summary of the book. 

A New York Times review by Daniel Dennett, offers a good summary and speculates about its reception among other scholars, calling for respectful engagement and concluding: “This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”

A review in EH Net—an economics history site—evaluating the book as a work of history. 

A Note on The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). The authors devote a whole section of the book to Scott’s argument in Against the Grain, but Henrich ignores his work. Henrich and Graeber/Wengrow seem to be talking past each other. Their names don’t appear in each others’ indices nor is their scholarship listed in each other’s long bibliographies. Dawn is blurbed on the dust jacket by four luminaries on the academic left: Scott (“dazzling, original, and convincing”), Robin D.G. Kelley, Rebecca Solnit, and Noam Chomsky. The most recognizable name among Henrich’s blurbers, Francis Fukuyama, whose book on early humanity is held up by Graeber/Wengrow as a typical example of the wrong way to tell the story (9).

As we might expect from a further-left perspective, Graeber and Wengrow seem to have a more favorable view of non-western societies than Henrich or Weiner but they also seem to be moving away from Scott’s view of grain-based agriculture as a sharp dividing line between state and non-state societies. A key argument of Henrich is that socieites develop through a process of “cumulative cultural evolution” which individuals in the society are unaware of. The products of that process are “much smarter than we are. . . . Cultural evolution assemble highly adaptive and complex recipes, procedures, and tools over generations without anyone understanding how or why various elements are included.” Individuals to whom these products are handed down generally don’t understand how they work, so best not try to mess with them (66-67).

Graeber and Wengrow, argue that people are natural political philosophers, who over the millennia, have come up with all kinds of different ways to organize societies. The greatest mistakes that chroniclers of early humanity have made is to assume all the people living outside of states, civilizations, and without settled agriculture were simple primitives who lived natural lives. The chapter I just read resurrects a lost history of dialogue between early European explorers and colonizers and “indigenous intellectuals” of North America in which the Americans proved to be the superior debaters and who offered unanswerable and devastating critiques of European culture. The Wendat “philosopher statesman” Kandiaronk, for example, said “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman,” and then spelled out how obsession with money led to a culture of “lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity” (54-55).

The two books also differ in their views of the relative freedom of people in different cultures. Henrich sees democracy as a unique feature of WEIRD culture—it’s the D in WEIRD—along with individual rights and freedoms. He says they weren’t consciously developed by the political philosophers of the Enlightnment—“fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians positing grand theories of ‘democracy,’ the ‘rule of law,’ or ‘human rights.’” Instead, they were an inadvertent product of the psychological changes caused by living in a WEIRD culture.

Graeber and Wengrow also demote fancy Enlightenment philosophers—they got their ideas about freedom from indigenous intellectuals of America. But the version of liberal democracy they came up with was vastly inferior to what the indigenous American practiced. All Europeans—rich and poor—were slaves to their material self-interests, engaged in endless competition over status and private property, subject to coercive hierarchies and punitive laws. Because indigenous peoples practiced a “baseline communism” in which, for example, “it would have been quite inconceivable to refuse a request for food,” they enjoyed a truer freedom. Their different experiences of freedom involved
very different concepts of individualism. Europeans were constantly squabbling for advantage; societies of the Northeast Woodlands, by contrast, guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life—or at least ensured no man or woman was subordinated to any other. Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of individual freedom.

Tema Okun and the Smithsonian would seem to be invoking this contrast in their critique of white culture. It seems doubtful, though, that she or anyone she has encountered in 21st century America has any direct experience of a culture like those of 16th and 17th century Northeast Woodlands peoples. 

One important thing that both books have in common is that they stand firmly against any kind of deterministic view of history or a notion that any outcome was or is inevitable. It think it’s also safe to say that they both see human societies perpetually in flux and that humans do have a big impact on their own history. Graeber and Wengrow, though, seem more optimistic about the ability of humans to consciously change their social arrangements for the better. The worst thing about modern WEIRD societies, they seem to be saying, is that they have forgotten that rich history and thus have an impoverished sense of how we could make things better. When I tell people that my daughter has joined a commune, they look at me with sympathy, as if the first thought that flashed through their minds was “Jonestown.” But if you read The Dawn of Everything, I think you will come away with the sense that what is weird about our modern world is not the rare commune that pops up, but the fact that there are so few of them. Having studied the rich history of those rare communal societies in America, I was not opposed to Emma joining this one, which I had read about—it’s been around for 50 years—but reading this book made me feel even better about it.

White Supremacy Culture

A Washington Post story about the Smithsonian controversy.

According to the museum’s interim director, the poster was derived from the book, White Awareness: Handbook For Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz (1978). The UMass professor’s review can be found on Amazon.

A black author reacted to the Smithsonian poster on CNN’s website: “There is no 'White culture,'” by Richard Thompson Ford, August 18, 2020

Tema Okun’s website, where she discusses how she wrote her original list, in 1997, at the end of a long day in the consulting salt mine in a “flurry of exasperation”: The list included “15 behaviors, all of them interconnected and mutually reinforcing–perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness and/or denial, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, the belief in one “right” way, paternalism, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress defined as more, the right to profit, objectivity, and the right to comfort.” Also on the site, Okun acknowledges that her list often seems to do more harm than good, even in the workshops she runs. She never foresaw that 

people would take the analysis and framework we offered and use it to beat each other up—"My analysis is better than your analysis," "I am/we are more righteous than you." Similarly, some people report that this list gets used as a weapon to accuse, shame, and blame in ways that perpetuate disconnection. …
Another, a skilled facilitator, reports that "I could not possibly tally the number of hours I have spent over the last three years dislodging people from the reductive stance they construct based on the tool. In its current form, just to name one area, it tilts people towards a behavioral and ahistorical frame. And because it couches things in a way that can be read as absolutist, it can generate almost ridiculous orthodoxies of exclusion. I worked in one situation where the communications function had come to a grinding halt because a segment of the staff had decided that editing was white supremacist and, while yes, there are elitist and racist frames around proper language, the organization was locked in an either/or frame that was incredibly unhealthy and unproductive."
An activist talks about how the list has been used to scold white people, to tell white people we are inherently problematic and that our work, those of us who are white, is to never trust ourselves. A BIPOC person shares that the list is traumatizing and triggering.

Working with each other across lines of difference is really hard. We cause harm, we operate out of our conditioning, we are rightfully enraged, deeply hurt, exhausted.

See also, the website for a consultancy she is associated with.

Matt Yglesias’s critical essay on Tema Okun’s ideas. 

A couple of months after I posted this, the Caledonian-Record (I'm a subscriber), carried a page-one article about a St. Johnsbury, Vt. Chamber-of-Commerce-sponsored eight-months-long "racial literacy training" based on Okun's curriculum, led by Sha'an Mouliert.

*Whiteness Studies 

Whiteness studies became a booming subfield in American history and other disciplines in the 1990s. The ideas of Okun and the Smithsonian poster seem to have been influenced by that scholarship. The best known historical work in the field is David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991). Whiteness scholars “proclaim their political commitments loudly and without hesitation” and adopt a tone of soul searching and “rhetorical rectitude,” according to a review article on the genre. They treat whiteness as a pathology—an “empty culture,” a “poisonous system of privilege.” One whiteness scholar wrote: “Exposing, analyzing, and eradicating this pathology is an obligation that we all share.” A pioneers of the field, Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White , established a journal called Race Traitor , which sought to be “an intellectual center for those seeking to abolish the white race.” It’s motto: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” (Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination, International Labor and Working-Class History Fall, 2001, p. 8).

See also, Peter Kolchin, “White Studies: The New History of Race in America,” The Journal of American History, June, 2002, pp. 154-173. Whiteness scholars’ abandonment of the stance of academic objectivity anticipated Times reporter Wesley Lowrey’s more recent call for journalists to elevate moral clarity over objectivity. See Wesley Lowery, “A Reckoning over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” New York Times, June 23, 2020. This move away from objectivity and toward advocacy journalism and scholarship is a function of the growing influence of post-modernist theories and Critical Race Theory, which sees methods of objective inquiry traditionally practiced by journalists and scholars as only serving the interests of the oppressive status quo. The logic of the argument is perhaps best captured in the title of a book by Audre Lorde: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”

Henrich’s failure to articulate a position of moral clarity, and his relentless use of statistical evidence and “objective” surveys may be another reason why his book is likely to be ignored or dismissed by antiracist theorists and advocates.

As I poked around the internet, I found this scholarly article, published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in April 2021: “On Having Whiteness,” by Donald Moss. Like others, Moss doesn’t come out and say that whiteness is genetically or biologically determined, but it is, he writes, “foundational,” and, like original sin, has “no permanent cure.” That sounds pretty essentialist to me. Here is the abstract, in full:

Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which "white" people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one's body, in one's mind, and in one's world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts' appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness's infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning ("never again") or as temptation ("great again"). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.
Back to text.